Homily: Preferring Religion to God

“Get out of the way and let God do His work!”
St. Luke 13:10-17

In today’s Gospel, we have an instructive encounter between Christ and the religious authorities.  Christ was teaching in the synagogue and in the midst of the usual activities or scripture reading, psalmody, lecturing, and discussion, something unexpected happened: Christ healed a woman who had been suffering for 18 years.  It is interesting to see the reaction people had to this miracle.

To the leader of the synagogue, the healing was a violation of the prescribed order of things – he was offended that such a thing was allowed to taint the service and the Sabbath itself.  This is what religious people, and especially “leaders” (whether ordained or self-selected) do: they preserve tradition.  We do that here.  We have an order that we follow.  And here I talk less about the “order of the service” (e.g. the things that are sung and how they are sung, when to stand, sit, bow, and cross yourself, how to take Communion, etc.), but the various local and personal traditions that have almost inextricably woven themselves into this order (e.g. who sits where and with whom, what language we use for what, whether and when to kneel, midnight or morning, old or new calendar).  All these things have created a pattern of expectations that we expect to have met every time we come to Church.  This sort of ritual behavior and expectations is what is known as “religion”.

The danger is when we confuse this “religion” for Orthodoxy.  And this is easy to do.  The pharisees and sadducees of Christ’s time certainly did it.  They argued with one another over rules and missed the fact that God Himself was among them to show them the proper way to live and worship.  This is what is most amazing about today’s Gospel: the One who gave the Law – who knew its letter and its intent; the One who IS its letter and intent – is accused of breaking the law.  Do you see how ludicrous this is?  It is as if a scientist accused the heavens of breaking the rules of astronomy.  Such a person has made a mockery of themselves and shown their traditions to be a poor guide for understanding.

Often, when we see such encounters and try to apply them to our own lives, we look around us and through our memories to identify all those people whom we have seen put rules and religion above Orthodoxy and the Truth.  This is completely backwards and unChristian.  When we do this, all we are really doing is identifying those people whose opinions and feelings about religion went against our own [opinions and feelings about religion].  Standing or kneeling; midnight or morning; American or Ukrainian; these things are important, but they are religion, not Orthodoxy.  If we allow our own opinions about how things should be done – even if it is the way things have “always been done” – to get in the way of Orthodoxy, then we are that leader of the synagogue who corrected God in the middle of His own house.  We are coming in between God and His purpose: the salvation of His people.

And remember, when we exegete the Jews in the New Testament, we are never really to think about other people: we are to think of and judge ourselves.  In Christ’s time, we are the Jews.  And so when it comes to applying today’s Gospel to our own lives, we are to ask ourselves; “how am I like the leader of the synagogue?  What have I done to impede God’s work in this parish and in this world?”  This is a useful meditation, especially if you combine it with a couple of guidelines.

The first guideline is that you cannot trust your feelings.  The man who follows his feelings and allows them to determine his opinions and actions is really just an overgrown boy.  The grown-up is the one who lives up to his responsibilities – in this case, Orthodoxy – no matter what his feelings are on the matter.  We allow Christ to train our feelings, not the other way around.  We do this through asceticism, a structured prayer life,  attending worship, serious study, meditation (hesychasm), sacrificial giving, and (most of all) putting the demands of God and the needs of our neighbor above our own.

The second is the recognition that Christ’s mission – and that of this parish that He Himself established – is to heal.  As members of this parish, that is what we are here to do: to be healed ourselves and to bring Christ’s healing to everyone in this community.  The “rules” that we follow – our truly Orthodox religion – must always be understood in this context: they are the treatments that the Great Physician has given us for the healing of our broken hearts and of this broken world.  They are the embodiment of God’s complete love and knowledge; thinking of them as things to be imposed or using them to assert our own pride turns this great and powerful medicine into poison, a poison that starts in our hearts and spreads into the hearts of those around us.  We follow God’s teachings because we are good patients; we share His love with others because we are good doctors.

The leader of the synagogue showed that he didn’t get it when he got upset that someone was healed at church on the day of worship.  But we know differently.  When Christ was in the synagogue, the “doctor was in the house”; just as He is here and now.  Through Him, we are allowed to become His healing touch and His loving voice; through Him, we are His body and blood, given for the life of the world.  And so we sacrifice ourselves, our opinions, and our feelings to Him and His service.

And thus we join the other Jews in today’s Gospel’s who “rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.”